Another summer passed and some regrets at having to return home

By Malcolm McRae

The last day of August saw Dugald MacNeill and me judging the Piobaireachd event at the Scottish Pipers’ Association Competition at the College of Piping in Glasgow. The new recital auditorium is an ideal venue for such an event — a good acoustic, and tuning rooms in close proximity. Jonathan Greenlees’ The Little Spree and Iain Marshall’s Lament for the Earl of Antrim were both good performances. Onwards to the Northern Meeting where Jack Taylor, Angus MacLellan and I judged the Gold Medal. Twenty eight played. As at Oban, the best tunes were first class, but too many of the performances that did not make the prize list were disappointing.

Jonathan Greenlees, the winner at the 2008 SPA Professional.

At this level we should hear a more consistent standard of performance, rather than the many instances of note errors, poor technique and poor musical presentation which marred so many of the tunes. An increasing number of players seems to treat cadence (and introductory) Es in a perfunctory manner, passing too quickly onto the following theme note and thus ignoring the significance of the E to proper expression. Surely, they are not misled by the conventional writing of the E as a gracenote? With the ready availability of so many recordings of good piobaireachd players, past and present, and of modern means of communication with good teachers world wide, there can be no excuse for poor musical presentation of tunes

My summer piping sojourn ended with the Piobaireachd events at Braemar and Blairgowrie. Although some 20 pipers had entered for Braemar, only 11 played — perhaps the rest had taken note of the weather forecast, which predicted cold and rain. The day was indeed cold, but dry, with blustery wind. The standard of playing, however, was surprisingly good. Andrew Rogers won with I Got a Kiss of the King’s Hand, well presented on a good pipe. Second was Greg Wilson (My King has Landed in Moidart), his tune spoiled only by a slight imbalance in crunluath movements. Jamie Forrester played a musical Lament for Donald Duaghal MacKay, although too slow in the doubling of the Ùrlar and the singlings of taorluath and crunluath variations. Martin Kessler was fourth with The Earl of Seaforth’s Salute — some false changes, and a chanter rather too light for the drones; Innes Smith fifth with a too cautious King’s Taxes, and Duncan Watson sixth with the Donald MacDonald setting of The Stewarts’ White Banner, raising again questions of interpretation of MacDonald’s method of writing tunes on the stave, particularly in relation to the playing of his embellishments.

Neil Hall, a winner at Blairgowrie in 2008.

Blairgowrie saw a good turnout of pipers, particularly for the B and C Grade Piobaireachd, judged by Norman Matheson and me. Again, the standard of playing was high, despite it being a cold day, and the best tunes compared favourably with many of those heard in the Gold Medal at Inverness a few days earlier. Neil Hall was first, with a smartly played Corrienessan’s Salute on a good pipe. Cameron Drummond was second with The MacDougalls’ Gathering, well expressed on another good pipe, but with a note missed in the last line of the tune. Third was Roderick Weir with The Massacre of Glencoe; some questions of expression, but sound technique and a good pipe.

Andrew Bonar was fourth with (Lament for the Earl of Antrim). There were some minor issues of technique and presentation but nevertheless a good performance; and Faye Henderson was fifth — The Rout of the MacPhees, neatly played

It is with regret that I departed once more for Australia, although some sunshine would be welcome. The piping to which I listened around the competitions (453 performances!) will serve as a tonic to sustain me until I return again next summer. Although I am able to meet and play regularly with other piobaireachd enthusiasts such as Roy Gunn, Iain Bruce and Ross Campbell, there seems to be less interest in solo piping in Australia now than was the case a generation ago. This is disappointing, but I am hopeful that the situation will improve in time.

* First published in the February 2009 Piping Times.

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